A Year with No Crocodiles

Steve Root // The Miami Hurricane
Steve Root // The Miami Hurricane
Steve Root // The Miami Hurricane

The signs posted around Lake Osceola warning of crocodiles might as well be taken down.

For a little over a year now the lake has not played home to the reptile.

Around this time last year an ongoing investigation took place over the slaying of the crocodile, which was nicknamed Donna.

The crocodile carcass was found in the early hours of Oct. 1 missing its head and tail near the University of Miami Flipse Building. A chum bag, believed to have been used to lure the animal out of the water, was also found near the location.

Evidence identifying the blood of the crocodile carcass to blood found in a local apartment refrigerator helped identify the perpetrators. Charges were filed against two individuals on Oct. 30.

The primary person responsible, 17-year-old John Michael Herndon, was charged as an adult and pled guilty to cruelty to animals, killing an endangered species and trespassing on school property with a weapon. These are all felonies.

Herndon was sentenced to two years house arrest and five years probation. He also pled no contest to witness tampering, a fourth felony.

Two months into his probation, Herndon tested positive for cocaine and was sent to jail, where he is currently awaiting sentencing. His probation violation means he faces up to 30 years in state prison.

“It is surprising how hardened he was, as a 16-year old,” Lieutenant Michael Colombo of the University of Miami Police Department said. “He was the kind of person who could escalate into doing other things.”

The second person charged in the killing was Steven Everette Davis, 33. While he is not responsible for killing the crocodile, he helped dispose of the animal and was also charged with three felonies. These included cruelty to animals, killing an endangered species and trespassing on school property with a weapon.

He was also charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, which is a misdemeanor.

According to Herndon, the motive for killing the campus crocodile was purely sport. Raised by a father who loved to hunt, Herndon was given the nickname “Crocodile Dundee” in school due to his wildlife involvement, particularly trips to the Everglades.

On the night of Oct. 1, 2008, he claimed to have been fishing in the canal by the Ponce de Leon parking garage when he heard the crocodile hiss at him. He then hooked some of his fish in a special way in an attempt to bait the crocodile. Once the crocodile became entangled in his trap, it spun to break free and exhausted itself.

Herndon then tied the eight- to 10-foot animal to the fence and dismembered its head and tail with a knife. He said he brought the tail home and tried to cook it, but it did not taste good so he threw it away.  

The head was intended for a trophy and was later abandoned in a local lake.

Special police dive teams were later able to recover the head, which was used as evidence but soon will be preserved and sent back to the university.

“We processed this just like a major crime scene,” Colombo said. “They really had nerve to bring weapons onto campus and butcher the crocodile here on our shores.”

The investigation involved the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the CSI unit from the Coral Gables Police Department. Trials are still ongoing and more people involved may be charged.

A year from the incident, students and faculty alike are still shocked by the act of violence which forever changed the Coral Gables campus.

“It was a docile creature, and I remember watching it basking on the lake shore while a couple hundred visitors on the UM campus sat on the grass and listened to a jazz concert,” said Dana Krempels, the director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Biology.

Memories of the crocodile on campus are abundant, as it was often spotted sunning on the lake’s shore.

“Everyone always got really excited about a crocodile sighting, and I would always see people crowding around it to take pictures,” senior Samantha Ku said.

Colombo recalls spotting a second, smaller crocodile at the site of the slaughter last year. The smaller crocodile examined the carcass and was never seen in Lake Osceola again.

This second animal had appeared in the lake shortly before the murder of the original crocodile. The animal has since disappeared, leaving the lake empty.